Having wrestled several times with one of E. J. Moeran’s major works, the Symphony in G minor, I thought I understood why his work is generally neglected today. Despite some fine orchestration, the symphony comes across as unstructured to my ears. As well, I find some of the climactic passages overdone. But then I heard Lonely Waters and his cello and violin concertos. Delighted by these three works, I decided to look more deeply into Moeran’s orchestral music.
A little biographical background first. Before he started serious composing, Moeran (1894-1950) served in the First World War, enlisting as a motorcycle dispatch rider in northern France. Wounded in the neck and head, he spent the rest of his life with a metal plate in his head. He was able to live a fairly normal life, although he became an alcoholic.
Moeran learnt his craft under John Ireland, who was “a firm believer in the importance of counterpoint.” Ireland inspired his student to spend “many weary hours” working on it. Moeran later wrote: “Personally, I have always been so lazy that it would have been nearly impossible to induce me to go to the trouble of working a single counterpoint exercise, had I not been encouraged [by Ireland] to believe in some very definite value in doing so…. I am glad of this today, for I have come to realize that only by this means can a subconscious sense of harmony, melody and rhythm be acquired.” (Moeran, “John Ireland as Teacher, “ Monthly Musical Record, March 1931)
It is impossible to gauge how much war trauma and physical injury affected him, but accounts of his post-war life show him to have been restless, always moving around England and Ireland and never settling for long in one place. At least he was able to indulge his love of motorcycles and speed; in the 1920s, before alcohol took its hold, he often competed in long-distance trials, and according to his friend Philip Heseltine won a gold medal in the 1922 London to Land’s End Trial. His restlessness was evident not only in his motorcycling but also, detrimentally, in his early compositions.
Moeran’s orchestral music appeared intermittently. He wrote three short pieces in the early 1920’s but then did not produce any more until 1931, when three more appeared. His only symphony appeared in 1937, although he had been working on it since 1924. Finally the largest bulk of his orchestral works appeared between 1942 and 1948. This dated list shows clearly the four stages:
1921 In the Mountain Country
1922 Rhapsody #1
1924 Rhapsody #2
1931 Two Pieces for Orchestra (Lonely Waters/Whythorne’s Shadow)
1937 Symphony in G minor
1942 Violin Concerto
1943 Rhapsody #3
1944 Overture for a Masque
1945 Cello Concerto
1948 Serenade in G major.
In the Mountain Country, his first short work (approximately 7:00 long) shows him already using a full orchestra to great effect and already using somewhat jolting transitions from quiet to loud. But as critics have pointed out, there is not yet an indication of the melodic gift that was to become one of Moeran’s great assets. He next wrote Rhapsody #1 and #2. The freedom of this genre allowed him to express a spectrum of orchestral sounds. There are moments of great beauty, but taken as a whole these two rhapsodies are too fragmented. They were perhaps practice pieces for longer works, in the same way that many young writers start with short stories before tackling a novel.
We jump seven years to 1931 and Moeran’s first orchestral success: Lonely Waters, a short tone-poem based on part of a folk song he often heard in Norfolk pubs. Dedicated to Vaughan Williams, Lonely Waters is clearly in the pastoral mode. Moeran seems to be saying to Vaughan Williams in this piece that he can also write beautiful music like Lark Ascending and Flos Campi. His writing is just as lush, and he uses interaction between the strings and woodwinds to great effect. Whythorne’s Shadow, the contrasting companion piece to Lonely Waters, suggests a dance and has a distinct Tudor feel. Again there is fine orchestration, but it lacks the impact of Lonely Waters. There was another orchestral work from this period, Farrago, but this was withdrawn by Moeran almost immediately despite a good reception at the Proms in 1934. Two of the Farrago movements were later used in Serenade in G sixteen years later.
The Symphony in G minor
In this middle period, Moeran was still producing only short orchestral pieces. It took him another five years to finish his symphony, his first long work. I’ve had a lot of difficulty with Moeran’s only symphony, finding it frustrating to listen to. Crammed full of so many ideas, it sounds overdone, as if Moeran was trying too hard to write a great symphony. According to Geoffrey Self, his biographer, the first and fourth movements of the symphony are based on three “parent cells” that Moeran had found in an old Norfolk folksong “The Shooting of His Dear.” Unfortunately, not being a musicologist, I can’t perceive these cells. Thus the symphony, while full of brilliant orchestration, appears chaotic to me. While I can grasp the development of a Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich symphony, I fail miserably with this symphony.
Moeran too had difficulty with his symphony! He almost completed it in 1924, when he was 30, only to withdraw it. He returned to this symphony ten years later and worked another 2 ½ years on it. During the interim years (1924-1934) he published only Lonely Waters and Whythorne’s Shadow. But he clearly was determined to compose a symphony. I believe he hadn’t found a satisfactory way to structure a large work of almost 45 minutes. It seems likely that part of the problem came from Moeran’s reluctance to reject sections that don’t fit the larger structure. According to Jack Westrup, Moeran “has sometimes been criticised for not knowing what to reject.” (Self, 114). In fact Moeran admitted to Michael Bowles that the last movement of his symphony was “five minutes too long.”
The Two Concertos
The violin and cello concertos mark the highpoint in Moeran’s composing. Appearing within three years of each other (1942 and 1945), they show not only a composer at his creative peak but also a composer who is more in control of his ideas. The orchestration of these two concertos enables the solo instruments to be heard clearly; this is apparently especially difficult with the mellow sound of a cello. Moeran once discussed this in a letter: “The cello is the devil . . . on account of its middle and bass register: frequently you must treat it as a solo, albeit alto or tenor part, and you must be careful not to put too much on top. Hence, I believe, the scarcity of cello concertos owing to the technical difficulty in writing them.” (8 February 1945)
The violin concerto, written over the four years following the symphony, is determinedly Irish. The folksong elements, according to Tasmin Little, are not suited to the classical violin. She confessed to needing lots of practice in preparation for her 2015 Proms performance (see YouTube), and despite her virtuosic skills she never sounds really comfortable with Moeran’s score. I much prefer the Chandos recording by Lydia Mordkovitch. Of the three movements, the first is most successful with its pastoral tone and wonderful orchestration behind the violin. The shorter middle movement is livelier in parts but lacks impact. The final movement starts beautifully in the same spirit as the first. After a brief dialogue between violin and flute, a little urgency surfaces and a restlessness pervades until the end. This is a fine concerto, although I don’t feel the high quality of the first movement is maintained.
Moeran’s ability to create exquisite melody lines for a solo instrument is just as evident in his cello concerto. He wrote it for his wife Peers Coetmore, who was a leading cellist. He consulted her during his composing. The concerto starts with Moeran’s most memorable melody. Once this melody is established, the development of the first pastoral movement is easy to follow. Self is full of praise for this movement: “Moeran has achieved an almost monothematic structure in which the rhapsodic flow of cell melody has, through consummate skill, appeared seamless.” (189)
The second movement begins with the lowest notes of the cello playing a new sombre melody. This mood lightens a little as the cello moves to its upper register and the orchestra comes into the picture. The movement ends with a cello cadenza and leads right into the jig-like melody of the last movement. The music takes a while to find itself, but it ends with an uplifting conclusion. Overall, it’s a wonderful work, almost maintaining the brilliance of the first movement.
Four shorter works appearing from 1943 to 1948 all have the imprint of Moeran at his best as an orchestrator. Much of this later work is lighter than the concertos, as if he were composing more for an audience than for himself.
Serenade in G. This eight-movement work initially seemed to be light music, but I’ve learned that it is actually a pastiche of many early styles of English music. The serenade format enables Moeran to show the scope of his orchestration skills, especially with an enlarged brass section.
Rhapsody in F sharp for Piano and Orchestra. Longer than the first two rhapsodies (17:30), this is really a one-movement concerto. On its completion Moeran wrote that “it contains more than its fair share of tripe.” (Letter, 10 October, 1943) Eleven months later he wrote, “I really think after all it is a very good effort on my part. It seems now all so virile and logical.” (Letter, 10 October 1944) Again the music is on the light side, with passages that can only be called sweetly romantic—was this “its fair share of tripe”? It’s as if Moeran was striving for a wider audience. Nevertheless, there is much to be enjoyed here.
Sinfonietta. Like the Serenade, this work of six short and two longer (6:30) movements allows Moeran a lot of flexibility to create different moods. I like this music; it’s cleaner, more assured. As with the concertos I sense a more confident Moeran, a Moeran that doesn’t have to “pull out all the stops.” Paradoxically I get both an earlier classic feel and a more modern feel in this late Moeran work.
Overture for a Masque. This commissioned work is the only overture Moeran wrote. It begins with a pleasant strutting melody and develops clearly thorough a pastoral and then a darker section. It’s workmanlike but not especially memorable. This composition has the leaner orchestration of his later period and shows Moeran at his technical best.
So what Moeran works will I continue to listen to? The two concertos definitely top the list. Moeran had a special talent for showcasing solo instruments in his orchestral works—not only string but also wind. Then I will want to return to the pastoral freshness of Lonely Waters. And despite what I have said about the symphony, I will try again to find the structure that is said to unify this major work. After all there is some wonderful music there. Lastly, I will want to enjoy the leaner orchestration of the Sinfonietta. And, of course, there’s more Moeran to enjoy—the chamber music, the solo piano music and the voice music.
Moeran.net provides a lot of information on Moeran’s music.
The Music of E. J. Moeran by Geoffrey Self (1986) is a thorough study that uses terminology but not to the extent that excludes the general reader. Self provides useful material that increases the enjoyment of Moeran’s music.
Chandos Classics, CHAN 10168 X, offers both concertos with Lydia Mordkovich (violin) and Raphael Wallfisch (cello), as well as Lonely Waters and Whythorne’s Shadow.